The Enemy

Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany  |  Luke 6:27-38

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. So who thought this was a good idea?

Do to others as you would have them do to you. Most of us are good with this one. We can wrap our minds around it, and it isn’t even specific to Christianity — there are other flavors of the golden rule floating around out there. We like the idea, until we realize that “others” includes everybody, including our enemies.

Loving our enemies? It makes no sense. It’s impractical and unproductive behavior. Unpatriotic, one might say. From people in the next booth at the Waffle House to military strategists, everyone will tell you that helping your enemies is not a sound principle.

What we all really want is to discourage, even punish, negative behavior — anything negative toward us, that is. Whether on a personal or a cultural or a national level, we want to intimidate our enemies. Nuke the bastards. Turn their houses into radioactive ash heaps, and you won’t have to put up with them anymore.

Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.
Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.

And if we are a righteous, God-fearing people — we may substitute the name of our country, people group, or militant bridge club here — God is on our side, right? It isn’t about resentment or petty retribution. It’s now the judgment of a wrathful God upon our enemies. Right?

I confess that I have a list. There are people whom I’d like to see fall through an open manhole cover into a disease ridden sewer to land on the snout of the largest, most evil, ravenous, albino (because that’s weird and more frightening), man-eating, ebola-infected, urban crocodile ever imagined, with only prolonged and ragged screams ever emerging from that darkened pit.

Ok, maybe I’ve spent a little too much time thinking about it, but I’m not the only one.

The gospel message is that we ought not feed the darkness. To a degree, as with the Do Unto Others teaching, we can go along with it, but for most of us the notion that there is something worthwhile in every person loses steam in the face of certain individuals. Hitler is the classic example, but I’m sure we could all name less famous folk, some a great deal closer to us.

James Thurber wrote a story called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s a hilarious tale of an ordinary man who fantasizes about being extraordinary. A famous pilot. A brilliant surgeon. We laugh, until Mitty’s secret fantasies begin to hit home for us, and then we smile to cover our discomfort.

Most of us have pictured ourselves as heroes, destroying the bad guys. If we’re more passive, we imagine getting the phone call informing us that our enemy is humiliated, or ruined, or dead. And plenty of quiet grandmothers have imagined using a cast iron frying pan in non-culinary and extremely satisfying ways.

Most of us spend too much time thinking about the past. We drag up old resentments, slights, losses, injuries, and we make them into the central plot of the mental play of our lives. The movie plays in our heads relentlessly, and we keep watching, never imagining that we could change the channel. 

Let’s be honest. We don’t want to love our enemies, even if we knew how. That’s the whole point of having them in the first place.

Paul, writing to early Christians in Rome, tried to put some spin on it — by doing good to our enemies, he wrote, we pour coals of fire on their heads. That sounds encouraging, and I can think of at least a dozen people who’d look great with their heads on fire. Unfortunately, Paul didn’t explain the mechanism by which it works, and we remain unconvinced.

Test yourself. Think of the worst person you know, the bottom (or top as it may be) of your list, and then imagine that you were given carte blanche. You could do anything you liked, and no one would ever know — no reprisal, punishment, or rocks to be thrown your way. What would you do?

Me, too. I wouldn’t even have to ponder it very long. It’s why so many of us secretly enjoy the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

So what do we do with this Love Your Enemies business? Most of the world’s inhabitants ignore it as dubious advice from a man who ended up crucified by his enemies. See where it got him?

Moby Dick, illustration from 1892 edition
Moby Dick, illustration from 1892 edition

On the other hand, if we do have the inkling (let alone actual faith, but who has that?) that there is a God, or if we consider that we are all connected, or if we can accept that there is something greater than our own personal interests, then we’ve got to consider some possibilities.

For one thing, maybe doing good to our enemies introduces, activates, or confirms some value, worth, and possibly life changing power in their lives. Damn it. Maybe they are our enemies for reasons we do not see — in the movies playing in their heads, we are the ones who acted wrongly or who deserve their disdain. Or maybe they are truly loathsome people — some people are — but the nature of our response can undermine their world view. Maybe.

Another possibility is that doing good to our enemies adds intrinsic value to the universe. There may be other universes, other planes of existence, but here we are in this one. Making our universe a better place is our responsibility. Nobody is going to do that for us.

The best reason may be personal — doing good to our enemies has some intrinsic value for us. Yes, my imagination fails as well, but there it is. Helping another person, particularly when there is little question of reciprocity, has a greater effect on us than on them. It changes our estimation of their value as a person. It shifts the plot of the movie in our heads.

You don’t even have to be a Christian for these ideas to work. Compassion and forgiveness are embraced in many traditions, religious and non-religious ones. Compassion makes us better humans. Empathy and understanding make for more peaceful communities. And it is difficult to put out a fire by adding fuel.

The whole point is to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from everyone else. That’s hard to do, particularly in America, where our entire national mythos is built around the rugged individual.

This Gospel notion, though, isn’t for me, or you, or for that jerk over there. It’s for all of us. All inclusive. This Kingdom of God idea includes everybody, or at least invites everybody. No exceptions, no matter how much we’d like to submit a list of rejects. In Buddhism, the notion of connectedness hasn’t been diluted by western individualism, but Christianity has to reach for it.

We might even find that people we think are our enemies really aren’t. They may not even give us much thought. Of course, that isn’t always the case. There are dangerous people out there. Hate groups. Neo-nazis. Terrorists. Thinking that our response to our enemies is a purely personal act, as opposed to a broader cultural or national one, is also dangerous. It limits our possibilities, and it limits our understanding of our responsibilities. How we as individuals choose to act is important, but we are not relieved of responsibility as members of a community, a culture, a religion, a nation, a civilization.

What does it look like, this doing good to our enemies? A lot of it is obvious. Some of it isn’t.

If I see a person in need and do nothing, am I their enemy? If I see someone being harmed, oppressed, held down, injured by individuals or by society or by some groups in that society, and I do nothing, am I their enemy? Maybe I am.

And religion, particularly Christianity, doesn’t have a good track record on this one. Plenty of Christians used faith based arguments — wrongly, of course — to justify slavery. Today, plenty of Christians use faith based arguments against LGBTQ people — again, wrongly, although this would be an entire topic of its own. How is hatred and exclusion and intolerance furthering the kingdom of God? Even if Christians could manage to justify regarding some people as enemies of their faith, the gospel commands a response of love and of doing good.

Instead, Christianity has often become a bastion of exclusion, intolerance, and hatred disguised as religious observance. That’s not what the gospel preaches, people. I don’t know what label to put on the exclusionary and intolerant form of religion often practiced today, but it isn’t Christianity. It is something else, dressed up in the forms and language and symbolism of the Church.

To put it another way, Christianity has become its own worst enemy. Being excluded by Christians can be harmful, in real and in dangerous ways. Being within the Christian world can also be toxic — we may find that we are our own enemy. And it may be that loving our enemies begins uncomfortably close to home, maybe even inside our own heads.

When we love our enemies, we are reaching. And we’re remembering that we are not able to place ourselves in a different world than they occupy. We’re in this thing — love it or hate it — together, and we need to embrace it. And one another.

Bernard of Clairvaux, in his work On Loving God, concluded that the best and strongest reason to love God is God — love is its own reward. In Luke’s gospel we hear that “the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Perhaps that is the reason to love our neighbors, our enemies, ourselves. The love we give is the love we get.

Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.
Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.

The Real Thing

The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany |  Luke 6:17-26

Reading Luke’s beatitudes, we want to make them about spiritual things. Is that so wrong, to read a Sermon on the Mount passage, and to want it to be about spiritual things? Maybe. It’s wrong, if we pretend Jesus was not addressing practical things, because that lets us ignore what he said.

Blessed are you who are poor, we find in Luke’s Gospel. We prefer the other wording — blessed are the poor in spirit — but that is Matthew’s version, not Luke’s.

Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.
Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.

It’s our version, too, if we’re honest. Over the centuries, the church tends to quote Matthew for this material, not Luke, just as we tend to use the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew, not the shorter, more terse, prayer from Luke. In Matthew, all of this sounds better, and all of this sounds less practical, more other-worldly, more to do with heaven than with earth.

Blessed are you who are hungry, we read in Luke, but we want it to be a spiritual thing — by which we mean not a physical, human thing. Not real hunger. Not like a child who hasn’t eaten, not like those people fleeing the beaches of Africa in leaking boats, not like homeless people sleeping under garbage bags on the sidewalks of the richest nation on earth. 

Blessed are those who weep, this gospel says, and we want the tears to be somewhere inside, unseen. Something spiritual that we can gloss over with words. Nothing that requires a tissue or a handkerchief, nothing that would let our tears wet our fingers. Nothing that would cause us to ask what was the matter and have to help make it right.

If you are truly poor, maybe reading this on a screen in a distant place, then I want to say thank you. Past that word of thanks, I am not sure I have anything else for you in my words. If there are blessings in hunger and in poverty and in being hated, you already know them. I am really addressing myself and people like me — we who have so much more than most of the world. Homes. Steady income. Plenty of food on hand. Clean clothes, air conditioning. Medical care.

In Matthew, when Jesus teaches the people to pray, he includes the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven.” Luke doesn’t.

Van Gogh's The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.
Van Gogh’s The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.

Maybe Matthew is thinking more of the spiritual life, or maybe the intent is to point out the gap between the here and now and the then and there. Maybe both gospels intend to point to the discrepancy between what we say and how we live, between the spiritual and the physical life, the widening chasm between heaven and earth. Maybe the idea is to close the gap that we ourselves have created. Luke knows that the reality of life is nothing like we imagine heaven to be. Not for the hungry, or the weeping, or the poor, the hated, the excluded.

We also like Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes because there are no woes listed, no negative pronouncements. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the woes of Luke do not apply to us.

Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you when all speak well of you.

I have to admit that all three of those things apply to me. And I want to turn back to the kinder Matthean vision, a gospel where I can fool myself into believing that we are spiritually poor, spiritually hungry. Ironically, I am, but not in any sense that is going to let me escape those woes. I don’t get off cheaply — there is no cheap grace here. There is no cheap grace anywhere, not if it is real.

Of course, there is no line, no division between the physical and the spiritual, not really. Not if we are to be human. Many Christians complain that there is not enough attention paid to spiritual matters, spiritual truths. Usually, they mean rules of behavior and methods of controlling other people — one’s family, one’s friends, one’s society. Not surprisingly, if we followed the very practical advice of the New Testament letter of James — feed the hungry, find clothes for the poor, see to their very physical needs — we would be astonished to find that the spiritual lives of everyone involved were enriched. Healthier. More alive. And life on earth would be that much closer to the ideals of heaven.

Deep Water

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany | Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-13

We don’t know what Jesus told them. A story centered on Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching a crowd, and we don’t hear a word of what was said. That’s odd.

We do hear from Peter, a fisherman willing to let this wandering teacher use his boat as a platform, the water’s edge as an amphitheater. More than that, Peter is willing to take their nets, the ones they were washing out and putting away, and drop them back into the Sea of Galilee. (Yes, same place — Gennesaret, Galilee, Tiberias.) Whatever Jesus had been saying must have made an impression.

When tired fishermen pull in two boatloads of fish, that makes a bigger impression.

Peter’s reaction is the most interesting part. That is where this gospel story is focused — not on the teaching, not on the miraculous catch that’s so large we’re still telling the fish story 2,000 years later, but on how Peter responds.

If Peter had no depth of character, he would have asked Jesus to come back and repeat the miracle the next day. If he had been a religious man, Peter would have questioned Jesus, his claims of authority, this sign of his miraculous power. If Peter were a little bit more religious, he would have asked for blessings — not fish, but other gifts. Power. Something to be gained from the divine.

If Peter were extremely religious, carrying around the guilt that religious folk specialize in carrying around and handing out, he may even have asked for forgiveness. He doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he asks Jesus to leave.

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Maybe that’s what Jesus sees in Peter. Not his sins, likely as plentiful as our own, but his heart. His lack of self-deception. His focus on what he himself lacks rather than on what someone else might do for him.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord….” That is the beginning of the matched passage the lectionary gives us from Isaiah. King Uzziah had been king for over 50 years — since long before the prophet was born, it is thought. A father figure, a symbol of authority and stability, a personification of national identity, is dead. It’s a crossroad, a moment of change, and the prophet has a vision of God.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of heart. Peter might have said the same thing, given a better vocabulary.

Today, it’s popular to focus on the other person, but not in a good way — here’s why she’s wrong, why he’s not like us, what they should be giving us, why we think God is going to condemn them and love us. Peter and Isaiah are self-centered, but not in a bad way — here’s what keeps me humble, what makes me understand that the universe does not revolve around me.

Peter saw everything clearly, and he found it to be a humbling experience. May we learn from his example.

There were other similar stories in the gospels, of course. Here’s a re-telling of one set later in John. It’s from my novel, I,John.

I was left remembering all of it, at least I was left remembering those days. They were in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it was the same. Some moments stood out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. One might think that the crucifixion was my most vivid memory, but it was not. Oh, I remembered that day, certainly, but it was not what haunted my dreams or crept into my waking thoughts. I remembered blind men, and Mary. I remembered Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remembered the bread that Jesus gave us.

Most of all, I dreamed of that morning at the shore.

Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.

No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.

Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.

“Friends, have you got any fish?”

I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.

No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.

“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”

All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.

The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.

“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.

There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.

Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed. The women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.

“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.

In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.